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Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists

Uniting and empowering a diverse community
of women and girls in the martial arts.

A Trip Transformed Into Journey:

Teaching Self-Defense and Self-Empowerment to Middle School Girls in India

Sigung Sonya Richardson

Sigung Sonya Richardson
Photo courtesy of Sonya Richardson.

What are your needs and hopes, on a fundamental level, for yourself? Your sisters? Daughters? Mothers? I want to be safe, feel valued and loved: positive opportunities are certain to manifest from that baseline. So stand our collective wishes for girls and women throughout the world: live in safety and be afforded possibilities. And that is where teaching judo and self-defense in Patiala, India began: we are our sisters’ keepers.

As PAWMA members, and women training in the martial arts and self-defense, we are fortunate to have had four decades of foremothers (board founders, teachers and participants) assuring yearly camps and serving as mentors throughout the year. Keiko Fukuda Shihan, 10th dan, the highest ranked woman in Judo, was one such trailblazer. Recognized by PAWMA in 2012 with the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Fukuda Shihan dedicated her entire life, ninety-nine years, to learning, and teaching women the art of Judo. The Keiko Fukuda Judo Foundation was established to sustain her legacy: it would serve as a pivotal catalyst, encouraging middle school girls half way around the world in India, to recognize themselves as worthy, capable and strong.

In December 2012, Jyoti Singh, a 23 year-old student riding the bus with a male friend in Delhi, was brutally gang-raped by six men. Following five days of attempted life-saving measures in hospitals in India and Singapore, she died from her injuries, which included disembowelment. Her rapists’ attorneys stated she got what she deserved, being out after dark and/or for being an unmarried woman going out to the movies with a boy (an unmarried man). That horrific tragedy shook India by the shoulders, pressing a much needed collective consciousness to the basic plight of her women and girls who daily are subject to a wide spectrum of sexual hostility trenched deeply in cultural norms. Thousands of protesters across India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Paris stood up and said “No more!”

Navneet Gill, an engineer and student of Fukuda Shihan’s living here in the Bay Area, rose in alliance. Having grown up in India prior to her years of college and work in the United States, Navneet experienced much of the same disempowering gender harassment firsthand. “When Sensei died, after the initial grief and sense of loss, I realized I wasn't following her biggest teaching. All my life I had complained and railed against how unfair it was for women in India yet hadn't done anything about it. And here she had lived her life fighting against bias, unfair traditions, and overcome some of the biggest challenges that led to so many positive changes that affected women all over the world. And she had done it in her own graceful (strong, beautiful, and gentle) way - through practice day after day.” Navneet approached Dr. Shelley Fernandez, President of the Keiko Fukuda Judo Foundation and way-making activist in her own right, with the idea of teaching girls in her home city, Patiala, in the state of Punjab.

Some movements begin by sitting in defiance (Rosa Parks), or signing petitions. Navneet is the type to passionately fly forward and hip throw any obstacles blocking the path. She enlisted a partnership team on the ground of persons still living in Patiala: her best friend from childhood, Raman Jeji; Raman’s sister, Navneet Jeji, a college professor preparing academic teachers for the public school system; as well as Sensei Jai Gopal, retired Head Coach of Judo from India’s National Institute of Sports. Together, in 2013, they trudged through governmental bureaucracy, performing judo demonstrations at thirty-five schools. Of those, five schools embraced change, and a Judo/Self Defense class for middle school girls in Patiala was born. This year, the program expanded to twelve sites: a phenomenal feat reflecting passionate insistence on the part of program organizers.

Teaching Self-Defense and Self-Empowerment to Middle School Girls in India
Photo courtesy of Sonya Richardson.

In addition to the highly skilled judo coaches teaching the girls, young women recommended by the National Institute for Sports, the Foundation invites a guest instructor to teach each year. This November, Shifu/Sensei Koré Grate, one of PAWMA’s founding members and the current Executive Director of the Association of Women Martial Arts Instructors, was extended the opportunity. She invited me to teach with her: I will be ever transformed, inspired by the beautiful students and persistent program directors. We were fortunate to be accompanied by Raman Jeji and Navneet Gill, as well as led by Dr. Fernandez, now 86 years old, throughout our days of teaching.

Our self-defense intensive ran for one week. We taught up to five classes a day, our driver speeding, as much as one can through roads filled with people on foot, motorbikes, tractors, cyclists, cows, feral dogs, trucks, trains, water buffalo, wheelchair riders and goats, to the next assignment. The van rides served as study hall and observation lab, as I sought crib notes from Raman regarding who we would teach next, their ages and time training in Judo, and clarity on cultural norms. In addition, I asked simple and profound questions: “Who gets to go to school?” “Can every girl get an education if her family supports that decision? Who pays for her uniform? Do the girls have to bind their hair in braids? How are boys of the same age raised?” “You can ask me anything. It’s okay,” she said. Her openness dissolved separation: the bedrock we all need, everywhere, for trust, community building and progress to take place.

Raman is a blend of case manager and den mother. She traded her childhood judo practice for yoga long ago, but her investment in the program and love and concern for the girls is exemplary. Attentive far beyond her years, she is exceptionally capable, resourceful, and calmly assertive. Raman is water that carves a stone, where Navneet is thunder that breaks the silence. Both are vital, complimenting each other’s skill set to push through oppressive societal barriers. Both were as busy as New York executives, making calls from the en-route van to set up face to face meetings with government officials in order to rally for program funding, check on the status of judo gi fabrication, or talk with families who had pulled their young daughters from school in order for them to work alongside their parents.

Teaching Self-Defense and Self-Empowerment to Middle School Girls in India
Photo courtesy of Sonya Richardson.

Raman, Navneet and the young coach, Shalini Tariyal, translated our teaching of the Five Fingers of Self Defense into Punjabi or Hindi as each group called for. Classes varied in length from twenty to 60 minutes, depending on how thick traffic was and whether or not we had to sit and greet the school’s principle prior to starting. We taught at each of the twelve programs once and returned to a number of schools for a second class. The girls ranged in age from very young (6 – 8 years) to college students (21 – 23 years), but most were middle school girls (11 – 12 years): a pivotal time to encourage self worth. Some were in classes for their very first day; some had a week’s worth of training prior to our arrival. A few had several months of training and, already, placed in regional judo competitions.

When asked why self-defense was important to them, the reply most in common was “I want to feel safe when I’m walking outside and I want to keep my little sister and mother safe too.” Nearly all of the girls were poor in finances and rich in spirit. They were brilliant and focused, hungry for knowledge and appreciative of feedback. Some ran through skills we taught them in the days prior as we arrived, organized by a natural leader amongst them: remarkable for 11 – 12 year olds, and an act for us adults to emulate. They did not wait for us to direct them, but instead demonstrated motivation and gratitude through the simple act of practice.

Sometimes our dojos were small, crowded music rooms; sometimes they were raised outdoor stages with large ants scurrying between our bare feet. Occasionally, we worked in a spacious, dedicated mat room. We went with the flow when school custodians apologized for stacking bags of dry cement, a valuable commodity requiring the protection of an otherwise locked room, in what would serve as our training space. We worked around the premeditated, congealing, actions of vice principles who mysteriously lost the key to the judo room. Our collective purpose far outshone imposed or perceived training hall limitations. We had two target pads, determination and skill: an inalienable combination for any travelling self-defense class.

I watched Shifu Koré skillfully work an otherwise defeating and chaotic situation where we were intentionally blocked from classroom use. Standing under an outdoor overhang and holding up a large framed photo of Fukuda Shihan, Shifu Koré told the story of who Shihan was and how her life work led to our class together that day. A few moments later, mats appeared and were placed nearby for use. We were there with the goal of serving the girls: how could anything short of victory occur when the ground was diligently laid by program organizers and so many students stood eagerly seeking hands-on knowledge?

Teaching Self-Defense and Self-Empowerment to Middle School Girls in India
Photo courtesy of Sonya Richardson.

I have far more stories to tell you than time permits here. Perhaps we can sit over chai and speak longer. India’s effects were expansive and far-reaching: I am still sorting through and conscientiously assigning words to my experiences. I was shifted awake both quickly and subtly: mind and heart open for the lessons: some lovely, some seemingly unjust. The dynamics of power, race and gender were palpable daily, but experienced and perceived differently through each of our lenses. That’s what India ignites: astonishing wonderings that seek reflection and voice with a resulting churn to action amongst community. I was brought on to teach, but learned far more in the exchange as I witnessed Raman and Navneet roll up their sleeves, stand up, stand in, dive deep and repeat the process again and again. They galvanized my perspective and re-energized my commitment to giving the best of my abilities to support transformation in others. I invite you to do so also, as it relates to your life and your community.

In our roles of martial artists and social justice workers, we woman warriors serve as bridges, named Change, between need and progress. The bridge is tested, falls apart, and no doubt is rebuilt monthly and daily, but what a worthy investment when elemental respect and freedom for you, your sisters and daughters is the goal. There is a gospel song, African American in tradition, with the lyrics “I don’t feel no ways tired. I’ve come too far from where I started from...” I awoke with that in mind daily in Patiala, inspired by the indomitable and life-changing efforts of Raman and Navneet. Who was I not to get up and share my offerings alongside them with India’s jewels, her beaming middle school daughters, through teachings encouraging each to stand bravely, live safely, and be allies to one another?

When asked why she continues to invest her time and energy so tenaciously, Navneet told me the following: Sometimes, all people need is a little help at the right time. There are so many little girls who have the fight and desire to make their lives better, to make it a fairer world and help themselves, their mothers, sisters, families, societies... But the weight of circumstances, of poverty, of unfair societal structures, of an apathetic administration is too much - it kills the fight in them, forever bowing down to 'their lot in life as it is. If we can help fan the flames of that spark in them, shield them just a little at the right time till the flames grows brighter, stronger, and prevent the spark from getting extinguished in even one person - it is all worth it.

To contact Navneet Gill directly regarding the ongoing projects for the girls in Patiala: Navneetgill30@yahoo.com

Sigung Sonya Richardson is a 7th degree black belt in Kajukenbo and 5th degree black belt in American Kenpo Karate. She is the head instructor and executive director of Hand to Hand Kajukenbo • Self Defense Center, established in 1980 by the late Professor Coleen Gragen. She recently retired from three years of service as PAWMA’s board president and is currently serving in the role of elder counsel. She is deeply grateful to the Jeji family in India for their wonderful care and hospitality, and to Dr. Shelley Fernandez and Shifu Koré Grate for their lifetime dedication to non-profit causes. She bows deeply to Fukuda Shihan, whose life motto, “Be strong, be gentle, be beautiful,” rings clearly and is reflected back in the hearts and actions of the hundreds of girls her legacy reaches in Patiala. The Keiko Fukuda Shihan Judo Foundation: keikofukudajudofoundation.org

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